Being an explorer is overrated. Sure, Lewis and Clark are remembered as bold adventurers who set out across the untamed American west, charting charts and mapping maps and becoming famous along the way. It's less memorable that the expedition frequently feasted on dogs, slept with more locals than a touring indie rock band, and included at least one accidental butt shooting. In other words, between an explorer and fame there lies a whole lot of gristle.
Last week, Choose My Adventure voters set me on the exploration path in Frontier Development's Elite: Dangerous. While exploration hasn't yet been implemented as a viable career, it's still a thing you can do just because you feel like doing it. It's also a pretty great way to see your life end in a cacophony of flames and shrapnel or to find yourself staring at a map in complete and utter confusion.
Still, it beats roasting a Labrador and passing it around the campfire.
To boldly go
The future vision for Elite: Dangerous's exploration system is pretty darn cool. We, as explorers, will adventure into unknown systems, scan those systems for points of interest, and actively scan down those points of interest to determine their value. The first person to scan every possible corner of a system and register the information with the nearest Federation or Empire claim office will earn a juicy bounty. But it's not all scanners and probes in the exploration community; pirates can smash your ship and steal your exploration data just as they can steal your regular cargo. If Frontier can deliver, Elite's system sounds like one of the more compelling realizations of space exploration in recent memory.
In the current build of Elite, however, exploration is something you have to make interesting on your own. Checking out each system is more of an act of pure spacefaring curiosity than it is an effort to turn a profit. Exploration at the moment works a lot like this: Open the galaxy map, say, "Hrmm, that sounds interesting," and hyperspace-jump yourself into the unknown. You won't be awarded any medals or granted a lucrative cash reward, but you will get to see some of the far corners of the galaxy and take a peek at planets, stars, asteroid belts, and mysterious signals.
Elite's supercruise system makes it relatively easy to charge around a system checking out its various orbiting bodies. There's not much variety as of yet, but at the very least each system seems to contain a station, a couple of planets, and a massive star that you must give a wide berth while bouncing from point to point. There's also the constant threat of interdictions, where another ship forces you out of supercruise to either murder you or make sure you're not running illegal cargo. Interdictions will eventually be a player-on-player interaction; at the moment they're just NPCs randomly interrupting the flow (and not very often; I think I've been interdicted four times in about 30ish hours of Elite). Sadly, I was not interdicted at all after voters demanded I fight all hostile targets; I'll keep that part of the CMA active as we move forward.
Fuel management is a factor. As you investigate different systems you need to remember to stop at friendly stations to refuel. Your Elite ship does have a reserve tank and a distress beacon, but the first comes with a fine and the second comes with the chance of drawing unwanted attention. Additionally, I had to remove the weapons on my ship to make a few of the hyperspace jumps I wanted to make. I couldn't make them in my starter Sidewinder without first reducing my mass, and the guns were all I could do without. It was an interesting kink in interstellar travel.
Imperfect beta things
While I'm very much enjoying my time in Elite thus far, small issues occasionally arise that remind me the game is still in beta. Connectivity problems often cause stations to fail to respond to docking requests, the game frequently hard locks and requires a forced shutdown/restart (evident in both streams we've done so far), and weird loading hiccups sometimes make coming out of supercruise drag a multi-minute affair. Each of these problems shines the beta light squarely in Frontier's face. Forum research shows me the bugs I have experienced are by and large known issues; it's on Frontier to get them repaired before the next build goes live.
On a broader level, Elite in its current state is quite shallow (we've seen this complaint in the comments section of basically every Elite post ever written on the site). There's not much to do beyond taking missions and flying from point A to point B. Personally I find the space sim mechanics engaging enough to stay interested even when running repetitive courier missions, but I'm a dude who actually likes mining in EVE Online. Frontier can't possibly count on people like me if its hoping to build a successful game with a growing user base (that will eventually face off with a completed Star Citizen in 2036). The game needs more depth, and while the newsletters are packed to the gills with future features, saying and doing are two very different things in the games industry.
The other big thing I've noticed is that running into other pilots seems a rarity. I see NPCs far more frequently than I see actual human players, and Elite isn't so great about telling you whether a nearby ship is one or the other (from what I can tell it requires a scan, but I could be missing something or might not be familiar enough with ship types). I understand that Elite is currently in an (expensive) limited access beta, but the lack of activity does make me concerned about how the game will feel when it has all 400 billion of its procedurally generated systems implemented. Hopefully things will pick up.
Mostly, though, I like what I see. And I still have one more week to deepen my knowledge of the game.
So how should I spend it? We've done exploration; it's time to check out another path.
I have one more Elite stream planned for next week. In the last couple of weeks we've showcased exploration and smuggling. What do you want to see next?
Finally, it's time to pick October's Choose My Adventure game. I am offering a simplified choice this time around -- something old or something new? Note that sci-fi is off the table since we've done it two months in a row.
Get your votes in by Saturday, September 20th, at 11:59 p.m. EDT if you want to help guide my current and future journeys. Next week, I'll offer some closing thoughts on Elite: Dangerous and my time spent among the stars as we gear up for October's CMA reveal.
Mike Foster is putting you in the driving seat of Choose My Adventure, the Massively column in which you make the rules, call the shots, and take the blame when things go horribly awry. Stop by every Wednesday to help Mike as he explores the ins and outs of games big and small and to see what happens when one man tries to take on a world of online games armed only with a solar keyboard and the power of spellcheck.